Reflections on Trout Mask Replica
On June 16, 1969, a singularly original album was released upon an already creative decade. It was called Trout Mask Replica and it was by Captain Beefheart and His Magic Band. There are few albums more polarizing than this work of art. To call Trout Mask Replica challenging is an insult to the word 'challenging'. But it's certainly not incomprehensible, nor reprehensible. It's a learnable music and, even better, a very deep and fascinating experimental fusion of blues and free jazz.
The album can be demanding from the very first track. I still find "Frownland" the least accessible of the album's songs, if only because the drumming seems rhythmless as opposed to polyrhythmic. It comes on very strong, very harsh, and yet a brave thesis emerges: "My smile is stuck/ I cannot go back to your frownland." The music may seem exotic, but we are no longer in the frownland -- everyday mundane reality. This is a fantastic place, a magical place, and our tour guide is Beefheart. Heck, with all its declarations about finding his "own land" or "homeland", "where a man can stand by another man without an ego flying," this could be the America of our childhood.
The album then nearly crashes with the oddly placed spoken piece "The Dust Blows Forward 'N the Dust Blows Back," admittedly a nice surrealist poem, evoking the Dust Bowl, being down and out, and fitting in recessionary times such as these. But there is a flow problem here, and I don't know who to fault for that. The first captivating song is "Dachau Blues", a devilish piece (it actually sounds like flames rising), very appropriate for its horrific subject matter (more literal here than anywhere else in the album), and a warning about "World War Threes". At 40 seconds, a very sophisticated sense of rock exhilaration proceeds until the guerilla, hit-and-run (Scaruffi's apt description) clarinet makes its first appearance, and its ugliness seems completely necessary. An odd story about rats follows, one of the many humorous skits/asides on the album.
"Ella Guru" is the most accessible song on the album, the first track to download if you're curious. It's truly a gem and helps the novice listener decipher the album. With its squirrel voice, jolly lumberjack melody, proud bearing, and indescribably ecstatic breakdown, which takes the guitar through sparklers and rollercoasters (evoking your favorite 4th of July memories), the song is one of the most feel-good inventions rock has yet offered music. At 1:37, the guitars begin meshing abrasively, but it's an expressive bashing, not in the least muddied, and it's a crescendo to end crescendos, where, in a called for self-aware moment, Beefheart is heard to say (one imagines with a big smile) "dig it, just dig it."
Trout Mask Replica really wakes up for me in the fussy clarinet, groovy guitar barbecue that is "Hair Pie: Bake 1". This is where the album's musical statement seems to be made clearer: the nonchalant fusion of blues and free jazz. Perhaps that's why "Hair Pie" gets reprised. At 2:45, the tone turns bumbling and goofy, like the goon of a cartoon, but there is real drama in the music, which becomes less abstract and more forceful after repeated listens. Another minute of captured conversation candidly portrays Beefheart as an honest, enthusiastic, if somewhat absentminded genius.
"Moonlight on Vermont" boasts one of the most menacing and powerful riffs in rock history. And it's funky, angular, and bluesier than Sabbath ever got. The pounding drum rhythm is one of the simpler to figure out, and Beefheart's growling vocals are at their peak the whole performance. The feedback segue at 2:18 leads nicely to the beckoning call, from the top of the mountain, in that wild jackal voice, "Gimme that old time religion." It may be good enough for Beefheart but it's beyond good enough for the listener. This is +5/5.
As though the last three songs were not marvelous enough, Beefheart playfully announces "A squid eating dough in a polyethylene bag is fast and bulbous/ Got me?" as we launch into the steady groove of "Pachuco Cadaver" which could go on for five minutes if you ask me. But I don't mind Beefheart serenading the piece with romantic lyrics about an impossibly beautiful woman. At 2:11, a gorgeous guitar interplay begins, playful and flirtatious, like lovers frolicking in the grass on a warm summer's day. Maybe that's why Beefheart fills it all with such flower imagery. The clarinet returns to break up the reverie, but only enhances the drama and pleasure, ultimately succumbing to the glorious romance of guitar and drums, running, skipping, rolling down the hill together.
In its discordant rhythm, "Bill's Corpse" articulates a terrible conflict that Beefheart knows better than to fight, allowing the song to collapse in inarticulate confusion. Notice the darker, more mature tone throughout. Like a child, the music escapes (or reverts) to "Sweet, Sweet Bulbs" where Beefheart tries to possess that beautiful woman again. This is a sexier, more sultry Beefheart than before, and the song has the moves of a cool jazz cat. On cue, "negativity" at 1:04 ruffles the song's complacency, and by 1:30, the tone seems angrier, perhaps wiser by hard learning. "Neon Meat Dream of a Octafish" is pure Dadaism, as though that could offer relief from the agony of an already irrational life; this is Beefheart at his most self-destructive, though he has a sense of humor about it with his inane wordplay. The last 30 seconds reveal the drunk clarity that this is just aimless partying and the morning will come sooner or later; notice how the music's aperture, so to speak, closes, and an instrument wails like an alarm clock.
Sobered up, Beefheart straightens his clothes, struts proudly like a rooster, on the stately and pared down blues of "China Pig," where the lyrics are finally familiar, even cliched. Any sensed cliche, however, is a joke targetted at the notion of normality that Beefheart always disagrees with and aims to disrupt. Getting back to normal for Beefheart is to play the standard blues, though, and he enjoys himself quite heartily (pun fully intended!)
So much for that! Humanity pisses Beefheart off and he lets us all have it on "My Human Gets Me Blues," vaguely (and probably not) an indictment of religion and more likely an expression of existentialism. The world has no meaning so Beefheart tries to infuse it with all sorts of wildness; see also "Wild Life" later in the album. The cymbals crash, the bass rumbles, and the most alien melody follows, filled with deep sadness. Listen to that guitar go at 45 seconds! Wow. By now, you may notice how perfectly the polyrhythmic drum complements the proceedings; the use of high hat and cymbals on this album is crazy. The cogent commentary on gender toward the end is remarkable, especially if Beefheart came up with it on the spot. Also best reference to an "old-spotted hog" we will likely hear in a song.
"Dali's Car" is the first math rock song ever, if you ask me, in the apathetically though precisely plucked guitar lines and overall ambience of emotional distance. You can't tell me that Slint were not influenced by this 87 second track. "Hair Pie" returns with its triumphant swaggering, a groove of tightened tendons, gritting teeth, and critical mass in all its varieties. Contents are under pressure. This is one of the jazziest songs on the album for sure, though, and it really swings.
"Pena" begins with arguably the album's most famous skit of sorts. The winning phrase "fast and bulbous" is immortalized. The guitar seems quite sarcastic, even bored, as Beefheart screams maniacally and a frantic voice leaves an emergency message. What a hilarious musical statement. Too much madness, again, it seems, as we turn to the solemn "Well", where Beefheart tries on a messianic persona.
Then the best song on the album where it all comes together. The rave up, indeed, that "boiling magma" as Scaruffi accurately put it: "When Big Joan Sets Up". Combine free-jazz guitar hurricane with clarinet brilliance with incessant polyrhythm drumming and just let it go for five minutes: a recipe for limitless success. The clarinet seems to have found its home, or is that homeland, on this piece, and gets its first solo (played beautifully). The guitar and drums start-and-stop, as if impatiently waiting their turn. But it's also a self-aware moment: Beefheart is commenting on the herky-jerky quality of his music. The lyrics are surprisingly compassionate, and the violence of the clarinet really matches the shocking discovery ("hoy, hoy/ is she a boy?"), and, really, this song jams like none other. The drums and guitar and bass just hum, hum. It's a hurricane fighter plane ballet, a drunken fire dance.
"Fallin' Ditch" is an almost anthem. Beefheart defies death and defeat of all kinds, claiming that no fallin’ ditch will claim any of of his bones. What seemed a mere throwaway at first blush, now makes my entire cheeks bright red with its rallying cry to fight! A personal favorite of mine is "Sugar 'n Spikes", which suggests more convincing black magic than any song I know. Love the drum rolls and build. It is a beautiful blues melody that starts at 42 seconds, so cryptic and arcane. You picture old bluesmen hoe-dancing in the bayou. "Ant Man Bee" is a straightforward metaphor of humanity as ants that have not learned to work together as they should on account of the big lump of sugar each struggles for. It's a song about power and how power overwhelms regard for others' rights and ultimately the freedom of the masses. "Why do you have to do this?" pleads Beefheart in one of the album's most poignant moments. Also the blues melody here is again unique. Tragedy has never sounded so mysterious. Is this music tapping into our most irreconciable -- god forbid, irreducible -- conflicts? He gives it such an antiseptic tone at times, too, in the harsh honking of the clarinet and dour (sour) guitar, pointing the way toward the blank generation of rock music (Residents, Pere Ubu, Tuxedomoon).
"Orange Claw Hammer" is another spoken piece. Not my favorite. "Wild Life" is also nothing too exceptional, more or less the established sound (though the guitar reaches some interesting notes around 1:38 and 1:42, perhaps mimicing the clarinet), paving the way for the predictability of the next album, Lick My Decals Off, Baby.
"She's Too Much For My Mirror" has the glory of a flag in a rainstorm. Like "Sugar N' Spikes" and "Ant Man Bee" this one boasts a peculiar melody. Who said this album was without melodies? "Hobo Chang Ma" is a funny song in which Beefheart seems to have taken on a whole new persona.
"The Blimp (mousetrapreplica)" must have had an influence on the Residents. The desperate Southern-sounding guy is a lot like the choir of helpless voices on "Ship's 'A-Going Down" off the Not Available album. Frank Zappa makes a welcome appearance on it as well. The humor and “as-is” presentation of the piece is demystifying and yet the cryptic message and alien keyboard nevertheless make the track and its intent wholly obscure.
Even at 2 minutes and 19 seconds, "Steal Softly Thru Snow" is a multi-part song. Very few action movie scores have the sense of impending dread conveyed from .11 to .32. At .54, the song picks up a great beat, before a ricocheting guitar riff at 1:03 leads to another brutal groove, then yet another glimmering piece at "rainbows, rainbows," before the drums cap it, and Beefheart does that wonderful thing peculiar to this album, finishing the vocal line after all the instruments have come to a rest (perhaps a consequence of being in partial-sync with the instruments during the recording).
"Old Fart At Play" sounds like a resurrected adolescent poem, set to now firmly established Trout Mask music, nothing too exceptional, but a good piece, until suddenly "trout mask" gets referenced and we understand its inclusion. A hilarious moment comes at the end where Beefheart finishes his pretentious prose, and a voice quips "Oh man, that's so heavy."
The album ends on just the right note with "Veteran Day's Poppy," with its sleazy introduction, then propelling forward with the most country-bumpkin ditty but the slide guitar is so sincere and full of ridiculous beauty. It has all the bullshit pomp we have come to associate with American holidays, like a float parade and marching band that have hit the wall, or a punctured hot air balloon. It's impossible not to love, especially when the drums come in with that conventional rush, and the guitars get noisier and noisier (like this is the Velvet Underground or something). A long fadeout of this great jam starts, before another more morose and somber -- and, again, very post-rock or math rock -- piece takes its place. It ends the album properly with a big dose of reality. This was all fun, but now we're leaving that magical land and being escorted with regret to that frownland. In many ways, no better articulation of the letdown of leaving an enhanced state of mind (whether gained through tripping or meditation or great music or whatever) to frustrating sobriety has been composed in music.
Captain Beefheart takes some getting used to at first, just like Ornette and Ayler and the Velvets and even the Stooges (and didn't Dylan sound pretty strange the first time we heard him?). But if it does sometimes require some patience and close attention, is also one of the most rewarding musical experiences available today. The fact is that this man's music, probably more than that of anybody else working in rock now, is breaking ground for an awesome superhighway leading us away from the decadent era of Superstars into a future where every man shall have ears to hear music beyond our wildest dreams, music like nobody's heard on earth before. [ . . . ] So I'm gonna go not so very far at all out on a limb and say that Captain Beefheart is the most important musician to rise in the Sixties, far more significant and far-reaching than the Beatles, who only made pretty collages with material from the public domain, when you get right down to it; as important, as I said, for all music as Ornette Coleman was for jazz ten years ago and Charlie Parker 15 years before that, as important as Leadbelly was for the blues Cap teethed on. His music is a harbinger of tomorrow, but his messages are universal and warm as the hearth of the America we once dreamed of. That's a combination that's hard to beat.
I will be posting this on my blog soon to commemorate the 40th anniversary of this rock masterpiece. Thought I would share it.